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Capturing time: digitising the Book of Hours

After much plotting, careful planning and collaboration among our Digitisation and Collection Care teams, in March 2019 the Library completed the digitisation of the final volume in our small but spectacular collection of Books of Hours.

Popularised in the 13th century, Books of Hours were commonly used as devotional aids, and often contained a selection of hymns, prayers, psalms and lessons. The books are very fragile – each page is constructed from highly decorated parchment and painted with elaborate, colourful scenes. The incredible brush work is accentuated by gold pigment, illuminating the detail within.

Our Digitisation team kicked off the process with several trials to determine the best way to photograph the volumes. They are extremely tightly bound, so to open the book while providing support for the spine, a custom-made cradle was designed and constructed by one of our clever book conservators in the Library’s Collection Care department.

The cradle supported the book on a rotating platform, which allowed the book’s spine to open at the required angle of 110 degrees. This minimised risk to the object; instead of applying clear mylar straps to hold down the page to be captured, we could position a piece of transparent acrylic, custom-bent at the same angle as the open pages. The acrylic was kept in place with suspended weights.


A woman uses a hand-sized pump to remove dust from a book being imaged.

Imaging Officer Taryn Ellis removes any dust from the acrylic that might show up in the images. The image on screen is open at the facing page being captured. Photo by Joy Lai.

A top-down view of an illuminated book being imaged, with gloved hands in view.

Camera’s view – shooting through the acrylic cover held down by weights on each side. Levels are checked to ensure the page is flat and parallel to camera lens. Photo by Joy Lai.

A woman handles a fragile collection item as a man waits in the background.

Conservator Hoa Huynh carefully turns a parchment page for Imaging Officer Gene Ramirez to capture. Photo by Bruce York.

Adjusting the cradle’s platform in minute increments compensated for changes in the book’s angle. This allowed the page we were photographing to be kept parallel to camera, while keeping the volume in the same position through each shot. The consistency of the shots also meant they could be adjusted in batches in Photoshop during the post production process.

It took two team members many hours in the photography studio to meticulously capture the rich colours and fine detail in the scripted works of each volume. We set up broadly diffused studio lighting and used Hasselblad camera systems, wrapping the camera with black fabric and covering any shiny surfaces to prevent reflections from appearing in the acrylic cover.

To avoid resetting the camera and moving the book more than necessary, we captured all pages on the right side, followed by the left. As each page was shot in a single frame, the detail was maximised, producing files that are 8272 pixels long (large enough to cover a bill board!). Details not visible to the naked eye are depicted in full resolution, and the results are astounding!

After both sides were captured, the image files were reordered and renumbered into their correct sequence. It was easy to make a mistake during this process – as no one in our Digitisation department is fluent in 15th century French, the images were visually checked multiple times before they headed through Quality Assurance processes.

After the files were checked by QA officers, they were ingested into our preservation system, Rosetta, uploaded to the online catalogue, and checked again to ensure that all links were effective. These dazzling images can now be viewed, saved and reproduced by anyone interested in Books of Hours.

An illumination depicting a religious, Christian scene.
Illuminated manuscripts – details from Book of Hours, 16th century
An illuminated manuscript.
Illuminated manuscripts – details from Book of Hours, 16th century
An illumination depicting a religious, Christian scene.
Illuminated manuscripts – details from Book of Hours, 16th century

Joy Lai
Imaging Specialist, Digitisation and Imaging

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